By JOSFYN UBA, KELECHI OFOEDU and CHINWENU EGBUZOBI
Nigerian-born Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi, is the Founder of RAMHHE (Raising Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education) and Economic and Social Research Council PhD student, in Mental Health and Wellbeing at University of Nottingham. She told Daily Sun recently that there is no better time than now to raise awareness on mental health in higher education because mental health issue is becoming a huge challenge for international students in the UK. Ms. NwaAmaka Bardi stated that the higher education sector and government should seek ways to help improve the mental health and wellbeing of overseas students Can you give us an insight into the state of students’ mental state in the UK? Over the past 10 years, there has been a fivefold increase in the proportion of students who disclose a mental health condition to their institution. And I believe that with a widening access to higher education, students’ population is more closely reflecting the UK’s wider socio-economic and demographic make-up, and a growing proportion of students would appear to be affected by mental illness. The mental health of higher education students is not only about students but also about that of their family members, friends, other social contacts, and their community members. When a family member or loved one experiences mental health symptom, it affects the student, studying and academic achievement and in the absence of a stable mental health, the student experience is hindered and education attainment may be limited”. What are some of the challenges the students go through which can lead to mental health if not checked? Naturally, there are peculiar challenges for International students travelling to the UK from all over the world to study, leaving their families, friends and other social contacts behind. For most of them, experiences of mental health problems go beyond the signs and symptoms. It is also about other things such as interrupted family interactions, stalled friendships, limitations of culturally sensitive environment and broken relationships. Speaking to international students about their mental health evoked some intense questions in me. I started asking when diversity of the university staffing will become an indicator in the local, national and world university ranking table believing that without any doubt, inclusion of equal distribution of the staff team from different ethnic backgrounds will promote equal support services for all students. Can you give us a sense of how this health challenge often manifest? As a mental health nurse, when I listened to International students, they commonly report stressors such as confusion with transitioning to a new environment, feeling homesick, facing communication barriers, and having new financial problems. Some of them express symptoms of mental health problems such as anxiety, panic attacks and depressions, but they are sometimes unable to identify what they feel. Sadly, while universities offer admissions and accept thousands of pounds worth of tuition fees from International students, their lecturing teams do not usually reflect a multicultural population to support these students. Why do you think that this problem is more prevalent among international students? This is so because some universities have failed to employ culturally accessible personal tutors and lecturers who will both understand the experiences of international students and provide culturally relevant support. I can understand the feeling of speaking to someone who does not understand you, your culture and how this might affect your experiences of being in higher education while trying to achieve academically like your classmates. Can you also recall your personal experiences with regards to this situation? When I was an international student, I suffered situational anxiety and panic attacks because I was unable to pay my fees, so I had to quit my studies due to lack of funds for tuition. I did not know or understand what I was feeling and I was not able to articulate my feelings without feeling like a failure”. To make matters worse, my father had just passed away and my widowed mother lived far away in Nigeria where mobile phones were not readily available at the time, and when they were, there was the issue of poor network connection. So staying in touch was difficult. In addition, I felt that my personal tutor only discussed assignment submissions and exams, and did not focus on my need for a culturally relevant mental health support” Would I be right to say that your personal experiences gave birth to your campaign on Raising Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education (RAMHHE)? That’s absolutely correct. With a sense of determination and an uncommon drive to succeed, I battled the situation and came out better and more refined. This inspired me to start the Raising Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education (RAMHHE), a campaign which seeks to sensitise students and promote collective anti-stigma discussions around mental health that will benefit all higher education students”. There’s a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) The ‘Not by degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities’ report. It says that around three-quarters of adults with a mental illness would first experience symptoms before the age of 25. So, what can be done in this case to help overseas students? The first thing is that for all higher education students who are not able to identify the signs and symptoms of mental health often hinder help seeking behaviour. Therefore, I advocate that the university authorities need to raise awareness of mental health to promote an anti-stigma culture that makes it right to talk about mental health problems. More efforts should be made to support overseas students. It would be helpful if universities could also employ tutors from different cultures, race and ethnic groups, inculcate mental health into the curriculum, as well as involving students in the decision-making about mental health care provision. These changes, if made would have a significant impact on the mental health of overseas students and greatly improve their experience of studying in the UK. As a mental health nurse, what do you think that government can do to help them? It is important for both higher education sector and government to seek ways to help improve the mental health and wellbeing of students. The universities should make the issue a strategic priority and adopt a ‘whole-university’ approach based on prevention and promotion, early intervention and low-level support, responding to risk and crisis management, and referral into care and treatment, according to the IPPR arguing that there is currently a wide variation in the extent to which Universities are equipped to meet these challenges. I believe that if the sector-led approach is complemented by NHS provision and new government initiatives, students would not be pulled back by their mental health.